Tag Archive: Christ


AMDG            Yesterdays Homily for the feast of the Presentation given in Oxford 

touching-the-void-posterA few years ago I read a book called Touching the Void – it was one of those books that you can’t put down and I thing I read it in three sittings in the space of 24 hours…… it told the story of climber called Joe Simpson and his friend who had a climbing accident in a remote mountain in the Andes…….. After breaking his leg, his friend lowered him down, attached by a rope, in rapidly worsening conditions, till eventually he was lowered off a cliff. Finding themselves at a dangerous impasse, he had to make an excruciating choice, they wither both wait and die, or he cuts the rope abandoning his friend to almost certain death, but probably survives himself.

He cut the Rope.

Amazingly his friend was to survive, and crawl back to the base six days later.…………However  going back to that night when the rope was cut, he fell and landed on a ledge.  When he was sitting on the ledge, alone, forsaken …. and staring death in the face, Joe Simpson decided there was no God.  He encountered  a void……  He would have experienced what St Ignatius would refer to as an acute desolation.   The recently canonised Jesuit Pierre Favre, talks about intense experiences in prayer ‘where God withdraws his presence’. Not permanently ….. but in a way to teach us when we are in danger of taking God for granted.  In the time of the Ezekiel, about 600 years before the birth of Christ – he predicted a chilling prophecy ‘ That the Glory of the Lord would leave the Temple’ .  This would be devastating news for the people, that temple was where humans and God were reconciled;  it was the unique place to encounter God, the one place where sacrifice to God was allowed.  Can you imagine how the People must have felt when Ezekiel prophesied that the Glory of the Lord would leave the temple’.  The temple would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians,  for the Jewish People it was a communal experience of touching the void.

images (1)So we can appreciate today’s readings, and particularly the Joy of the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the light of this experience of desolation.   Firstly we heard the Prophet Malachi in the first reading,  ‘And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek,’  – this prophecy would give great hope….. but none would expect the manner of the Lord’s coming.  And so today we hear how the child Jesus is presented before God in the Temple. We are told that Simeon is awaiting the consolation of the people Israel – and as he holds this child in his arms he believes this promise is finally fulfilled .  With the eyes of a prophet he recognises the presence of the Lord in this small child, and utters the words of that beautiful prayer ‘The Nunc Dimitiss’ which is said by millions of us each night at Compline.  Similarly the prophetess Anna, having spent years of prayer and fasting in the temple in anticipation of this moment, she rejoices in the Lord having returned to the temple.

The return to the temple of the Lord has profound significance for Christians on two levels….. Firstly in the physical, historical presence of the Lord – the presence of God on this planet is transformed.  In the incarnation – God is no longer limited to the Temple…. No longer limited to one city, one place.  Christ’s Body becomes the Temple – so as he dies on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that veils the Holy of Holies mysteriously is torn into two.  Then on the second level – the temple is the place of sacrifice, bulls and goats, doves and incense were offered to be burnt as thanksgiving offerings, guilt offerings, offerings at key moments in life e.g. childbirth.    When the Lord is presented in the Temple he will become the sacrifice that fulfils all other offerings – and we continue this sacrifice every day when we pray the beautiful prayer of the mass.  However in the sacrifice of the mass, the most beautiful prayer we can make, we relive the greatest sacrifice of all, Christ giving his body and blood for the sins of the world.  His sacrifice trumps all else – and this prayer is being offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week all over the world, in great cathedrals and in simple chapels, in the heart of great cities and on the tops of mountains, in schools and universities and in rainforests.

So as the Lord is presented in the temple – let us renew our devotion to the mass – to Christ’s presence in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Eucharist, and in and amongst each other.  We are not alone – we are not abandoned – sitting on an icy edge of life,  when we gather together for mass, mysteriously we are in the real presence of God – whose grace works quietly and patiently transforming our hearts and our lives.

Generosity & Happiness

AMDG

Todays Homily 

If you want to be happy in life then be generous – generous with God and generous with your neighbour……  There are phenomenal examples of generosity in today’s readings.

GenerosityFirstly we have the generosity of Jesus.  We are told today how he is informed about John the Baptists arrest and later his death. We remember that John was Jesus’s cousin – so this is not only the death of someone who Jesus esteems as the greatest of all prophets – this is also family. Jesus – fully human and fully divine – would have felt this like we would react to a close member of our family. Let us remind ourselves how John was killed.  After being imprisoned by King Herod – he was beheaded and his head was presented on a plate to Salome….  This is a particularly cruel and grotesque death – very public – humiliating….. How would you feel if your cousin died in such a manner?  How did the family of Lee Rigby feel when he was butchered to death on a London street and his crazed attackers.   Jesus doesn’t lick his wounds, he doesn’t harbour bitterness in his heart for Herod – he throws himself into his public mission – calling for repentance and calling his first disciples to follow him.  This is the generosity of Jesus -  Giving himself fully to his mission

Call-of-Simon-PeterSecondly let us look at the generosity of his first disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.  We are told that they respond to Jesus invitation – I will make you fishers of men – immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him.  There is no haggling with Jesus – there is no …. Let me think about it …. Can I get back to you.  These are hearts open to God – and generous with their responses ….. in other Gospels we are told that James and John were with their boats , father and hired men, so it is clear they have a little fishing business going – if they can afford to hire others to work from them.  So their generous response is against the backdrop of this comfortable life.

Why are generous people happy – because it is in generosity that we imitate God.  The creation of the world and of life is understood by the Church as a free act of creative love – the generous creativity of the divine.  God will not be outdone in generosity – and in some ways our being generous triggers God’s blessings.  It is not like some pastors will have you believe that you will become materially rich – it is a different type of wealth – you will become rich in your spirit.   Gods blessings are already there – it as though being generous makes your heart grow, and it can contain Gods more and more of Gods blessings.

ST Ignatius Loyola – wrote a beautiful prayer about generosity – many of the pupils in our Jesuit schools have to learn this off by heart – it goes like this –

Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that of knowing that I do your will.

Lets sit quietly for a moment and think – in which areas of my life can I become more generous?

Incarnation

AMDG

My homily for midnight mass – inspired by  Rob Marsh on Thinking Faith 

doctor_1416155cWe can probably identify life –changing moments…..  moments that make us think about life in a profoundly different way.  I would like to share with you a life-changing moment, that most of us have shared.  A few years ago, in Manila the capital of the Philippines, I had my first major operation – on my left knee.  I had worn out the cartilage and after the operation – the surgeon told me my football and running days were over.   My first reaction was – can I still go hill walking?    That hospital in Manila –was a turning point because suddenly my body became an obstacle to my dreams.  My left knee was screwed – and it forced me to reluctantly admit – there was no way I was going to ever going to become a midfield general, and score the winning goal in the Champions League Final……..  Ok maybe I knew that already…. It reminded me of when I was a little boy and coming out of the cinema after seeing Superman and being mildly irritated when I couldn’t fly – I even had the cape on….. but now it was definitive, the doctor told me I had worn my left knee out with training and running for marathons. This was a turning point for me and for so many of us because when  we are young it is as though our bodies are filled with unlimited potential. We admire youth because we see they can dream – and now my body had become an obstacle to my dreams……

downloadeThe opposite is at the heart of Christmas  – that God seems to love human bodies and choose them as the way of fulfilling God’s dreams. God the creator of the universal – and remember according to the Hubble Telescope the observable universe is hundreds of billions of Galaxies – and our Galaxy probably has 2 billion stars in it.  This all powerful – creator God – 2014 years ago (give or take a few years) – took on a finite human body – became a human being – a little baby – vunerable – flesh and blood – crying and going to the toilet – the God who created the universe.

Wow……

How does infinity dwindle to infancy?   Why did God choose to do this – in Bethlehem – in a country that was occupied by a ruthless foreign power? How does God fit into a body without making it explode?  This is the mystery of the Incarnation, remember incarnation – carne – flesh, meat – God became our flesh and blood – no other religion claims that – in fact if you were to claim to be God you are silenced…. Killed, incarcerated, and that is exactly what happened to Jesus.  It is such an amazing thing – to be the infinite God – who has become finitely incarnate.

download (1)Since I have been working at university – listening to so many students – sharing their joys, listening to their fears and worries.  I have seen the pressure so many of themselves are put under – academic pressure, financial pressure. But there is another kind of pressure which is deeper – a terrible kind of desolation – and it is all to do with self image, how they see their bodies.  I listen to beautiful young women telling me how they feel ugly, how they feel fat, their hair is the wrong colour , their breasts aren’t big enough.  And this deep unhappiness with their bodies is growing with men too – IT is being fuelled by the false images they are watching – airbrushed models,  unrealistic portrayals of sex, the culture of celebrity.   The financial and academic pressure will pass – but this type of pressure, self inflicted is much deeper and spiritually much more corrosive.

So remember the Incarnation – remember the real heart of Christmas – God, it seems, doesn’t hate bodies. In fact  God uses the human body – with all its limitedness – and all its mortality – to save the world.   How could we have allowed ourselves to be so far from that? There are websites know that encourage people to harm their bodies …… there is so much poison out there about how we think about ourselves… Christmas is the antidote to that poison.

download (2) And remember tonight is the start of Jesus’s human journey – the infinite all powerful God vulnerable in the hands of his mother – who will soon become refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers as they escape King Herod into Egypt.    Remember how the story ends – the Jesus the sun of God is tortured – his body nailed to the cross – and his heart stops beating, water and blood flowing out of his broken body.  This is no myth – this is history.  And when he rises from the dead – his glorious risen body – which is still carrying his wounds – becomes our hope, becomes our destination.

images Every day in this church – that body is made present to us in a unique way during the mystery of the mass – 365 days a year – twice a day when university term is on – three times a day on a Sunday – the incarnation of Christ during mass.  There is that famous saying – a dog is not just for Christmas – so let us remember the incarnation is not just for Christmas.  So all of you here tonight – who are occasional catholics – or visitors – you are very welcome, and it is great to see you.  Come more often next year – it would be wonderful to see you every Sunday  - this great mystery of God’s love – that he chose to take on the form of this life, on this planet, in this Galaxy – it is a mystery that we can never get used to.  But If we contemplate it, if we live it, if we renew it weekly – it is a mystery that brings us joy, a mystery that makes us appreciate life and our bodies, no matter how old they become.  When we forget it – and get caught up in the cares and worries of life – I can assure you one thing – we become miserable.

In a moment we will express our faith – this great story of God becoming Man – and tonight we will kneel after the words – God became man – to contemplate the immensity of the incarnation – to remember the Joy of Christmas.

Speaking Truth to Power

AMDG

This is my homily for tomorrow - the Second Sunday of Advent 

john_baptistSpeaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is often used to describe people who bravely stand up against injustice.  It takes courage, it takes integrity to put your head above the parapet.  It probably explains something behind the overwhelming reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela this week.  Whenever there is a media frenzy there is a lot of nonsense spoken about someone’s life – and this week is no exception to this – however it cannot be denied that Mandela become a powerful symbol for many people.  He spoke truth to power, and they tried to silence him, but in the end truth won out.  He was lucky – he wasn’t silenced – he didn’t become a political martyr.   Speaking truth to power is part of the job description for an Old Testament Prophet.  And today in the Gospel – on the second week of our Advent Journey we meet the greatest prophet of them all, according to Jesus, John the Baptist. Unlike Nelson Mandela – we know that John was eventually silenced – beheaded by Herod.  John is one of the great advent figures – bridging the gap between the NT & OT.  He speaks with great authority, and that authority is recognised by the people and so he attracts great crowds.

What is his message for this advent ?  I think that he is warning not to be complacent in our faith.  He calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees ‘A brood of vipers’.  He is not confronting the power of Herod yet – but a much more subtle power – the power of respectability and the power of a good reputation and keeping a public face.   So let us examine our own faith and our own lives.

roman-triumphSt Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises writes very clearly about the seduction of power and honour.  In his meditation on the Two Standards – he talks about how the trappings of fame and honour are used by the enemy to seduce us …. to pull us away from God, so that we come to believe that we are all powerful.  There is a fascinating index called ‘The Power Distance index’ which measures how much a country respects authority and values hierarchies.  The higher the country is the more likely it is to be totalitarian and score high on corruption scales.  In ancient times when a Roman General or a Roman Emperor used to have a victory triumph (or parade) and was receiving the adulation of the masses – a slave would stand behind him and according to Tertullian whisper in his ear “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die”…..the famous memento mori.

So this Advent – let us heed John’s challenge.  Let us be honest about the little ways we are seduced into thinking that we are great, we are clever, lest we become complacent.  Advent is a time for our hearts to become humbler – that we dust away the complacency – as we would preparing a guest room – for a special guest.  But this time the room is our hearts – and for the grace of Christmas to go really deep – our hearts have to mirror that humble manger in Bethlehem.

AMDG

bbcradio4Today we were very lucky to host the Radio 4 Sunday Service here in the Holy Name Manchester .  It has a UK audience of 2.5 million, and  is streamed live all over Europe, as well as being available to listen again for 7 days on the BBC Website.  On the internet it is a global audience.   Because it is live – the timings are very tight – so a couple of times my homily was shortened (I bet the students wish that a Radio 4 producer came to all our masses !)  Here is the original homily I gave on the difference between optimism and hope. 

The wonderful Choir rehearsing for the Radio 4 Broadcast

The wonderful Choir rehearsing for the Radio 4 Broadcast

There is a profound difference between optimism and hope. Today is about hope – the feast of Christ the Universal King – He is the reason for our hope.  Being around so many students here in Manchester fills me with optimism – their energy, their idealism, their passion.  But optimism can be fragile – we can easily get sucked down into swamps of cynicism, or wallow in a culture that delights in mocking.  We have just heard how they mocked Jesus on the cross ‘  If you are the King of the Jews save yourself’  Jesus is not the king of one ethnic group he is the universal King – In the midst of his suffering even the good thief senses this and rebukes them from his own cross – ‘Have you no fear of God?  – and his reward is the promise of Jesus the King of Heaven  – ‘ Today you will be with me in paradise’.  Can you imagine how the good thief’s heart soared with Hope on hearing this unexpected promise? Hope is deeply rooted, Hope is more resilient than optimism, it doesn’t snap in the face of storms, nor does it wither away amidst hostility.   Christian Hope is anchored in two places – firstly our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, so we can hope in the face of inevitable death, we can even hope in the face of disaster.  And secondly today we anticipate what the Catholic writer J.R.R Tolkien calls the ‘Return of the King’.  That we look forward to Christ the King returning to bring about a new era of justice and peace for all people.  When it seems that there is too much suffering and evil is flourishing, leaders are getting away with oppressing and killing their own people – belief in the return of Jesus is not just wishful thinking, delusional – but is a wellspring of hope.

As a university chaplain I see the potency of that hope every day.  Here in Manchester, our chaplaincy family consist of students from all over the world. They come from so many different situations, and what unites them is their faith, sometimes in the face of terrible persecution. Last week a young man from Pakistan told me how his family home was burnt down 6 months ago in anti-Christian Riots, students from Nigeria tell me with pride about the courage of their families who are going to church today even though there is a continual threat of bombing, the faith and devotion of a student from Syria, who is trying to help her family in Damascus is a constant inspiration.  These are intelligent, professional, scholars, many of them scientists who appear to have an unshakeable hope in their hearts.

Fr Williams Office turned into a live broadcast studio

Fr Williams Office turned into a live broadcast studio

A couple of years ago I was sent to the Philippines for my last year of training as a Jesuit.  Part of that experience was to live in the shanty towns in Manila for a few weeks.  The shanty town was very densely populated – with many people building houses on stilts out into Manila Bay.  When I arrived they were recovering from a very strong typhoon that had destroyed many houses. It was a remarkable experience, to briefly share the lives of these people.  Two things struck me – firstly how resilient they were.  They did not have much – so in the typhoon they had not lost much, and as we helped them rebuild their houses there was great joy and freedom.  Secondly how that resilience was rooted in faith and hope.  This is so evident in the recent disaster in the Philippines. It is has been remarkable seeing how extended families have pulled together, we have seen this these weeks in Cebu and Leyte, how families have travelled to the disaster areas to help feed and rebuild their loved ones. The communities that are present and able to immediately provide that hope are not the politicians but the churches.

Here in Britain we need communities of hope – our students here in Manchester have started the first student-run foodbank in the country.  It is needed because so many have lost the support of family – have no extended family they can turn.   But the student community here gives them hope, when they have to choose between heating their homes and eating – it is our foodbank that they can turn to which helps them through a short-term crisis, without creating dependency and also signposting them to other voluntary support groups.   And it is remarkable how much of this civil society is faith based.  They are communities of hope.

We are called to build communities of hope, the church is called to take risks and we can’t just do it from the safety of the internet. There is a fascinating book by Sherry Turkle, an MIT Professor, called Alone Together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  So let us expect and give more to each other. Pope Francis is challenging us to get out of our digital bubbles, and also to stop hiding behind our ceremonies – and go out and spread our hope especially to the poor. He has said the Church that remains in the Sacristy gets sick.  We are being challenged to become a church that carries the hope that is rooted in our hearts to the edges and margins of society. Are we up to that challenge?

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You can hear  the whole service by clicking on this link

AMDG

downloadJust finished reading an excellent book on the Pope called ‘Pope Francis - Untying the Knots’ by Paul Vallely.  Of all the books rushed out to capitalise on the widespread interest of a new pope – this seems to be the best so far in English. The title is well chosen because it refers to a painting of Our Lady – Untier of Knots that Bergoglio has a special devotion for, but also refers to the task that the author was facing looking at a complicated life of a Jesuit who has often found himself in leadership roles, often in very difficult circumstances, with a legacy that isn’t straightforward to tease out.  I think the author seems to do a fairly good job.  However what was fascinating for me – was the account of Bergoglio’s ‘intervention’ (speech) which made such a big impact amongst the other cardinals at the general congregation before  the conclave started.  Unlike many of the other speeches, which have been reported as being inward looking – this electrified the synod hall – because it was simple, spiritual, theological and most important from the heart.  

download (1)The only purpose of the Church is to go and out and tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ.  Evangelizing presupposes in the Church the “parresia” of coming out from itself. The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographical, but also existential: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, those of ignorance and of the absence of faith, those of thought, those of every form of misery.

When the Church does not come out from itself to evangelize it becomes self-referential and gets sick (one thinks of the woman hunched over upon herself in the Gospel). This self-referentiality, is a sort of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is standing at the threshold and calling. We often assume that the text refers to the fact that he stands outside the door and knocks to enter. . . But at times I think that Jesus may be knocking from the inside, that we may let him out. The self-referential Church presumes to keep Jesus Christ within itself and not let him out.

mq1The Church, when it is self-referential, without realizing it thinks that it has its own light; it stops being the “mysterium lunae”.  The mystery of the moon is that it has no light but simply reflects the light of the sun.  When the church thinks it gives out its own light it gives rise to a grave evil, that of spiritual worldliness (according to Henri De Lubac, the worst evil into which the Church can fall).  To simplify, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that goes out from itself; or the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself. 

Thinking of the next Pope: a man who, through the contemplation of Jesus Christ and the adoration of Jesus Christ, may help the Church to go out from itself toward the existential peripheries, that may help it to be the fecund mother who lives “by the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

The speech delivered in Italian – was short – just over 3 minutes, but it made a big impact.  Cardinal Schonborn turned to a neighbour and said – ‘That’s what we need’.  Cardinal Ortega from Havana asked Bergoglio later if he could have a copy to distribute.  It was only a few scribbled notes, but overnight Bergoglio transcribed from memory what he said and passed it on, giving permission for it to be put up on the website of the Archdiocesis of Havana in Cuba.  My version (above) is a mixture of Vallely’s, Sandro Magisters and my own translation.

AMDG

Attending the Jesuit Province meeting at the moment.  We enjoyed a beautiful morning prayer led by Fr Tom McGuiness yesterday on ‘Resurrection Encounter’.  It was interesting to hear the opening lines of Gospels account of Easter Sunday morning.

  • It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark….  (Jn)
  • On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn……  ( Lk)
  • Very early in the morning on the first day of the week….. (Mk)
  • ….. towards dawn on the first day of the week …………. (Mt)

dawn1

It is said that the darkest hour is before the dawn and maybe it was in this profound darkness that Jesus rose again.  This is why Christian Hope can be so enduring – it is in the darkest moments of our lives that God can act most powerfully.Tom then went onto share a beautiful 11th Century Irish Text called simply ‘The Dawn’. Written by an Irish monk, as he sat waiting in his cell – waiting for the light of the sun so he could continue his work on the manuscripts he was writing.

Welcome, bright morning,  enter my dark oratory

 Blessed is he who sent you, Victorious morning, self-renewing  

Maiden of a noble family,  The sun’s dark sister    

You touch the face of each house and illuminate both land and people   

Welcome to you of the white neck,  Covered in jewels, enter

 English Translation of ‘The Dawn’ – for original Gallic click here

 

Doubting Thomas

AMDG

English: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Ca...

English: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.  (Photo credit: Wikicommons)

I have always had a soft spot for the apostle Thomas, who would only believe that Jesus was risen if he could put his fingers in his side (see below).  Todays feast of St Thomas gives me great envouragement.  Its easy to be critical of Thomas’s lack of faith – but remember how devestating it was for the apostles when Jesus was arrested. Sure they were all cowards and ran away, but it is easy to forget how they had given up everything to follow him, they had staked everything on him, and for him to die in such a humiliating and public way was traumatic for them. They would have been shocked, disillusioned, disorientated. So when the risen Lord appeared to them, I can symapthise with Thomas’s reaction, once bitten – twice shy he didn’t want to get his hopes up again after they had been torn apart.  It is wonderful how gentle Jesus is with Thomas and his unbelief, without irritation He allows Thomas to put his hands in the wounds in His side to prove it really is Him – the risen Christ. Do we have the courage to take our doubts and our unbelief to the Lord in prayer?

Hands with Stigmata, depicted on a Franciscan church in Lienz, Austria

Another thing worth meditating on is the fact that the Glorified Body of the Risen One still bears His wounds. He has not risen like some super her0, rippling muscles and six pack – He retains the terrible marks of His torture and death.  Some people have said our culture could be defined as one that escapes from pain at all cost, we try and shut it out, medicalise it till it has no meaning. However suffering is part of the human condition, and the more we try and make it an alien part of our experience the more persistent is seems to become – a paradox that the Buddhists understand so well. We can react to suffering in two ways, bitterness and anger or with some kind of acceptance and hope. It is no accident that many modern ‘spiritual classics’ have been written by people who have gone through breakdowns or breakthroughs. Suffering can open our hearts, make us more compassionate and soften our pride and arrogance.  So in the ‘glorious wounds’ of Christ perhaps we can see that this openness is a privileged path for grace to work.  The mystical phenomenon of stigmata has long fascinated me, although it seems to be a gift given to Franciscans more than Jesuits!  Francis, Padre Pio, maybe that says something about Franciscan humility and openness and Jesuit pride!!

Todays Gospel – John 20

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But Thomas said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

AMDG

Chandra Observatory launched in 1991, at the time the heaviest payload, designed for 5 years, still going strong …pic from NASA

It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on.  I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware.  One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite.  NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space.  I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed.  Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence.  However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students.  Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.

My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem,  Rabindrath Tagore (right).  He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher.  I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism.  Tagore won the Nobel  Prize for Literature in 1913 after  Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London.   He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops.  Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow.  In a letter to E J Thompson he said  ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school - St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’.  In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’  he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….

2010 – 150 year anniversary

One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.

Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!

——————

AMDG

Today sees quite an event in Manila. Up to 8million people will throng the streets for the procession of the Black Nazarene.  This is a black statue of Jesus carrying his cross.  Placed on a shoulder-borne carriage, the image is carried by marshals (you can see them in yellow shirts).
 Originally a statue with fair complexion the ship that carried it from Mexico to Manila caught fire. It barely survived the fire, thus its charcoal color. Last year, the procession took 14 hours to travel the short distance. Referred to as the translation - the annual procession commemorates the transfer of the Black Nazarene on Jan 9, 1787  to St. John the Baptist Church in Quiapo Manila. 
As tertians we visited Quiapo back in September – on just a normal day – and it was crowded with people with queues of up to an hour just to visit the statue. What is behind this devotion?  Filipinos identify with the struggles and sufferings of Jesus Christ’   In the statue Jesus is depicted getting to his feet after falling under the weight of the cross – this  resilience is valued strongly by Filipinos – even in the most difficult circumstances they never seem to lose hope.

There is something of a frenzy about today’s event – in previous years people have died from stampedes.   We were advised not to attend because of the dangers inherent – and also we are occupied most of the day – so I have taken a video clip from last years procession to give you a flavour.  You will see people desperately trying to touch the statue – and also throwing handkerchiefs so that they may be rubbed on the statue and passed back.  You will also see the crush, danger and discomfort that many of the ‘devotees’ voluntarily undergo.  From a Western perspective – this is unsettling – and such religious fervour is challenging to witness.  One of the ways to cope with this discomfort is to dismiss it as hysteria or superstition. But maybe there is something deeper at work…..  the power of the incarnation ….. an almighty God who came down to Earth, renounced power and privelege – and entered into the reality of our suffering .

So the event can be interpreted as being many different ways. It is a popular devotion – to non-Catholics it may seem superstitious . Having lived here for a few months with the privilege of sharing life with so many Phillipinos – in the slums, in mountain villages – having seen two devastating tornadoes – I have only admiration for their hospitality, warmth and cheerfulness. Their identification with the sufferings and resilience of Christ makes sense to me.  This year organizers believe thousands of survivors of  tropical storm Sendong will attend.

The German Philosopher Rudiger Safranski says that religion in Western Europe has become “a cold religious project”: a “mix of social ethics, institutional power thinking, psychotherapy, techniques of meditation, museum curation, cultural project management, and social work.”  This insipid form of a religion, yearning to be socially acceptable in a society that has changed rapidly, some argue has helped to empty Western Europe’s churches. It is through this lense that I believe we should watch, with a certain humbleness, the outpourings of  ‘popular religiosity’.  It is easy to mock or scoff, but it always leaves you with a sense of emptiness….

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